connection to the natural world continues to be a pillar in my life in so many facets. it gives me a sense of purpose, it’s the best medicine for my mental health, and it encourages creativity and learning. today i’m sharing a practice i’m adopting for the new year – nature journaling.
i’ve written a few posts about the importance of connecting to our environment, and the joy of spending time outdoors. in these posts, i talk about how “nature” isn’t just some abstract idea that exists only in parks and exotic places, but an integral part of our human experience that exists right outside our back doors. likewise, in order to experience nature you don’t have to be an avid hiker or an “outdoorsy” person. in fact since it’s winter, i’m currently spending a lot of time observing nature by looking out a window, but i’ll talk more about that later.
the point is that living in connection with our environment is a basic part of being human, something that was simply a way of life to all of our ancestors. there are lots of reasons to want to observe and experience the natural world, and the reasons are as unique as each of us is. personally, for me nature connection grounds me in each day amidst a face-paced world. it helps me feel connected with a greater power and order of the universe. and most of all, it’s rewarding! i love learning new things and working with a nature journal provides a great outlet for this desire.
other reasons to observe nature could include studying patterns to use as practical guidance in our lives, such as if you were a homesteader or gardener. studying nature also helps us to appreciate nature and makes us more likely to choose actions that support the conservation of our world. i also think nature study can be a very spiritual practice, no matter what your chosen religion or path is. finally, nature study is a fun hobby and a great place to practice drawing or writing.
nature study is what keeping a nature journal is all about.
a nature journal is a place for you to record your observations about the natural world. it could really be any medium. i use a hardback, unlined journal. you could use a spiral bound notebook, a notepad, or even a computer document or google doc on your phone. all you need is a dedicated place to make and store observations.
what exactly, are you supposed to be observing? anything and everything related to natural phenomena. the weather is an easy place to start, and one could make a whole little journal of simply recording the day’s weather everyday for a year. plants are a great start too, because unlike animals they don’t move. plants also show significant changes throughout the season that are fun to document. natural objects like acorns, seeds, leaves, twigs, flowers, and feathers that you’ve collected on walks or from your yard. you don’t have to be able to name and identify everything right away. you could simply write or draw “red bird” or “tree with long skinny leaves.”
i believe the home is its own ecosystem too, and think it would be fun to keep track of the ongoings of your home. days when you clean. your meals. i haven’t delved too deeply into this, but just wanted to throw it out there.
as i mentioned above, you don’t need to travel far and wide to find things to write about in your nature journal. in fact, i think the best place to experience observe nature is in your backyard because it’s easily accessible. it’s also fun to uncover the depths of wildlife and plants living right outside your home. even if you live in an apartment in a city, there is still nature to observe right at home. the weather and the rising and setting of the sun and moon are natural phenomena all of us experience no matter our location.
i make observations at home as well as at parks and other places i travel to. i like bringing my journal with me to take some notes and sketches in the field, then flush everything out once i get home. since i do like to hike, i’m finding it fun to record my hikes and all the places i’ve been with an entry in my journal.
i do think it’s worth picking a place that will be your main spot for observations. this is because by observing the same space over a long period of time, you will get to intimately know the place through all the changes of the seasons. your own backyard is a perfect space, but if that’s not available to you a nearby park works well too. if you can’t get outside, making observations out a window in your home will do just fine. you’ll be surprised how much there is to see!
the methods and ways to carry out keeping a nature journal are many and varied, and i could possibly describe them all in this blog post. to make your journal your own, pick and choose methods that appeal to you. here is a list to get you thinking:
- writing – there are many styles of writing and recording observations. you can write passages describing your observations with lots of adjectives and details. you can make lists – when i’m visiting a new places, i will make quick lists of all the trees i saw or animals i observed. you can write questions based on your experience to research later, then compile your findings in your journal.
- drawing – before you say, “i can’t draw!” … i literally can’t draw. my birds are hilarious and my trees barely approximate their actual shapes. yet i am hoping that through practicing to draw in my nature journal, my skills will start to improve. if you are intimated by drawing (like me!), start small. i like to collect leaves, seeds, twigs, etc, then draw them in my journal. i even trace the outlines of these objects to give me a starting place. when drawing, it’s best to focus on the details – what do the edges of the leaf look like? how many petals are on the flower? if you are more artistically inclined, you can draw whole landscapes, animals, clouds in the sky, anything you see, really.
- charts and graphs – if you have an analytical mind, you can organize your observations into charts and graphs. make a chart of the sunrise and sunset times of every day for a month. graph rainfall. take bird counts. measure how much your plants grow. you can look this data up on the internet or in an almanac – that’s not cheating and it doesn’t detract from your journal!
- tracing and reliefs – making tracings of leaves and other objects is great if you con’t like to draw. you can also take reliefs of tree barks and twigs!
- photography – if you like to take photos or keep your journal on your device, this makes a great addition to your journal! you can get 4×6 prints made quite cheaply at CVS, and tape them into your journal.
my basic toolbox for my nature journal is my journal itself, a ballpoint pen, a pencil with a good eraser, and a cheap set of 20 colored pencils. you don’t need anything fancy. a few guidebooks of trees, birds, and plants in your area are also useful, if you have a desire to identify and learn species. you can find these for free at your local library!
my journal is a mixture of very basic drawings and writing. at the very least, each entry should include the date, place, time, and weather. i also draw the phases of the moon and the sunrise/ sunset times at the top of the entry. i don’t feel like i need to make long involved entries – in fact the shorter i keep them, the more likely i am to keep the practice a few times a week.
i hope this post inspires you to give nature journalling a try. i’ve found this practice much more suited to my mind that meditation, while providing the same benefits! here is a list of resources to help get you started:
- keeping a nature journal by claire leslie walker
- the art of field sketching by claire leslie walker
- secrets of the forest vol 1-4 by mark warren
- the naturalist’s notebook by nathaniel wheelright
- nature anatomy by julia rothman